OAKLAND -- A Sunday appearance by the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir in the Oakland East Bay Symphony's annual "Let Us Break Bread Together" extravaganza proved that not only good things, but exquisite, precious things, arrive in small packages.
Nestled like a tiny, blue-decked wedge of young talent between Hayward's mammoth-sized Mt. Eden High School Choir and the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Artistic Director Robert Geary's ensemble sparkled.
In the Piedmont choir's four works, sprinkled amid the exuberant renderings Oakland East Bay Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan has managed to inspire each year during the concert's 20-year history, approximately 35 ensemble members, ranging in age from 12 to 15, demonstrated vocal command, stylistic range, and an acute understanding of contemporary, minimalist music. Less grand in scale than their neighboring groups' repertoire -- but perfectly proportioned -- Geary's musical selections provided fertile ground for tomorrow's top talent.
Following "Sin Shalom," a tender, meticulously performed selection that did, indeed, "grant peace," the young musicians showed their mettle by taking on a section of a work by the grand master of extended vocal technique, Meredith Monk.
"Although I've done tons of new and very innovative music, this is the first Monk piece I've worked on," said Geary, in an email interview. "I enjoyed 'Things' and the kids worked really hard for it."
Monk, a MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient, has been redefining the human voice for decades. Able to create an entire symphony of sound from solo or collective human voices, the "Things" section of her "Three Heavens and Three Hells" was a West Coast premiere.
Capturing the work's cyclical, rhythmic complexity with ease, the young vocalists morphed seamlessly from 11-year old Tennessee Reed's explicit text to lingering hisses and clicks. It was an unusual selection for a holiday concert and yet, given Geary's philosophy about choral music for young people, unsurprising.
In November, the choir joined conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in Alban Berg's demanding opera "Wozzeck." From Dec. 14-23, the Ensemble will return to Zellerbach Hall to join in nine performances of Mark Morris's "A Hard Nut."
Geary believes in challenges.
"The opportunity to work with some of the preeminent artists in the world is a rich and inspiring opportunity for our singers," he said. "The experience allows them not only to perform at a top professional level, but to witness the hard work of dancers and musicians working at the highest levels. In this experience, there is opportunity for growth intellectually, aesthetically, and in the area of personal disciplines."
"Ding Dong Merrily on High," arranged by choir alumnus Eric Tuan, layered a third example of the choir's command on the songlist, especially in sections where isolated voices converged into unified, bold declarations.
Just when it seemed the Ensemble could do no more, Bay Area composer Jonathan Goodwin's haunting "Land of Dreams" offered a delicately sliced, mournful ballad. With Goodwin joining the choir to play his English Concertina, William Blake's poem, a dialogue between a boy and his father as the mother dies, gained an otherworldly, nostalgic aura.
"Let Us Break Bread Together" held additional offerings in the jubilant, energetic performances by the OEC, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and Klezmer band Kugelplex.
"I'm not even going to pronounce this one," Morgan joked, as he introduced "Maljarkica," a rousing Hungarian selection that served as launchpad for a combo blast of all choirs and the symphony in George Frederic Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" from "Messiah."
After intermission, Director Ken Rawdon's young vocalists continued to impress. The Mt. Eden High School Concert Choir might have the most enthusiastic and tightly rehearsed group of male tenor and bass singers in the Bay Area -- and the young women in the choir match them step-for-step.
A burst of red hats, tossed and donned with accompanying grins from the singers, showed Rawdon (a public schoolteacher working in a tough economy within a public school system) is defying the odds.
The show closed with one last, unusual choice.
"America the Beautiful," performed by the combined choruses and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, capped an election year and sent satisfied souls onto the streets outside the Paramount Theatre.